If the West has had any success in Afghanistan, it has been in encouraging India to make a massive investment there of economic aid, infrastructure projects and national prestige. New Delhi is the largest regional investor in the country, and ranks second among all donors. With the West’s looming defeat in Afghanistan, however, India’s success will prove Pyrrhic, and may well set the stage for another, perhaps nuclear, confrontation between Pakistan and India.
In their usual ahistorical manner, Washington and its NATO allies believed their 2001 occupation of the major Afghan cities signified not only the complete defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but also an erasure of two millennia of Afghan history and religion that afforded an opportunity to start the country anew. In this context, they looked for other countries to share the enormous cost of nation-building, and India stepped up to the task without having to be asked twice.
And what has India been up to? Mostly infrastructure projects, such as a 250-kilometre highway from Zaranj near the Iran-Afghanistan border to the town of Delaram on the road that connects Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. Indian firms and Indian-government funding are also rebuilding the Salma Dam power project in Herat Province; building the new Afghan parliament house in Kabul; and constructing a power line that will use 600 transmission towers to bring electricity from Uzbekistan, over the Hindu Kush, to Pol-i-Khumri, and thence to Kabul. These and other projects now employ up to 4000 Indian nationals in Afghanistan. In addition, Indian firms are investing in Afghan agriculture and mining, and New Delhi is providing student scholarships, medical aid programs and training for Afghan police and civil servants.
Clearly, Afghanistan’s battered infrastructure needs this help and much more. Like all foreign aid, however, India’s aid has come with accompaniments the Hamid Karzai regime fully accepts, but which tend to drive Pakistan’s government—and especially its general officers—to distraction and deep strategic worry. New Delhi, for example, has built one of its biggest embassies in the world in Kabul, and with it has built four consulates—some media reports say as many as seven—two of which, in Jalalabad and Kandahar, face Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. In addition, New Delhi has deployed nearly 500 men from the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organization to assist in highway construction, and as many or more paramilitary soldiers from its Indo-Tibetan Police force to guard Indian diplomatic facilities and construction projects.